“Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill,” written by Lanie Robertson and directed by Gregg T. Daniel.
Running May 15 through June 9, Wednesday – Saturday at 8pm, Sunday at 2pm
The Garry Marshall Theatre, 4252 West Riverside, Burbank, 91505.
I discovered Billy Holiday in my early teens, many moons ago. Her voice found a place in me that no one else has since.
Her soul seared into every syllable, her heart broke in every line and, for me, there could be no other. Of course she has made this same powerful connection with millions, while she was with us and since she left. There is something indefinable about her, not just the melancholy and the pain, but the joy too. She lived to sing, and she did that for us as long as she could.
This play is set around one of her last performances, mere months before she died.
Emerson’s was a seedy bar in Philadelphia. A place she had performed countless times over the years. This night she played with her piano man, Jimmy Powers, played by the sublime Abdul Hamid Royal and a bass player, who for these performances is played by the legendary James Leary. Lady Day arrives late to the stage, her band is nervous that she won’t come out at all, so they begin to play without her. The music summons her to the stage and, as she shuffles to the microphone, she awakens, revived and inspired by her song. She is clearly in trouble. She careens from one memory to another, from one song to another, often mixing the two. But, although she is high, or drunk, or something in between and all that mixed with deep despair, when she sings everything falls away and she becomes Lady Day once more.
Deidre Henry is a revelation as Billie.
She aches with her torment and carries heavily the burdens of Billies extraordinary and heartbreaking life. She is weighted down by them, they cloud her and cling to her, and like a drowning woman, she tries in vein to surface through her gorgeous music.
It’s an impossible task to play this icon. How could anyone come close to her, in song or in person? Yet, Ms Henry seems to have let Billie inhabit her, truly. She has a presence that defies logic somehow. Her performance is astonishing, beautiful and profoundly moving. And when she sings the roof rises, the audience holds its breath and time stands still.
Ms Henry has her own voice, so close to Billie’s but with her own subtle infusions. Her ability to sing like she’s inside out, just like Billie could, is rare. But she is also a spectacular actor and spins Billie’s stories with a lightness and a love for her even in her darkest moment. Billie Holiday was an effortless contradiction – a poet, a junkie, an angel, a hustler, a survivor and, in the end, a victim of the worst kind of addiction. Her struggle to be respected as a singer and a songwriter in a time when being black was a crime and being a woman even more so would be enough to break anyone. Yet she persisted…until she just couldn’t.
This play brings us right back to those final days.
A bar, a piano player and a double bass and one heroic woman who sung like no other. A glimpse at grace personified, a reminder of what greatness truly is and how dearly we need it in our lives. How dearly we need Billie Holiday.
This is a very short run, so please, please get your tickets right away and do not deprive yourselves of this amazing piece of theatre.
I wept and I grinned from ear to ear and I held tightly to my program, utterly transfixed and utterly grateful to be there. Absolutely loved it…Bravo!!!
Deidre Henry – Lady Day
Abdul Hamid Royal – Jimmy Powers
James Leary – himself
Scenic consultant – Tanya Orellana
Costume Design – Michele Young
Lighting Design – Tom Ontivernos
Sound Design – Robert Arturo Ramirez
Properties Design – John M. McElveney
Production Stage Manager – Giselle N. Vega
Wig and Hair Design – Sheila Dorn
Musical Director – Abdul Hamid Royal